After the Detroit Lions’ dominant performance in the running game against the Los Angeles Chargers, it’s time to acknowledge that the team has an abundance of talent in their backfield unmatched in the NFL.
Right now, the Lions rank fourth in rushing yards per game (139.0), sixth in yards per carry (4.5), fourth in rushing touchdowns (14), and fourth in rushing DVOA. But for the few teams ahead of them in most of these rankings (Bills, 49ers, Eagles), they have a non-running back contributor in the run game—typically a quarterback or receiver—who is helping them add another dimension to their offense.
When it comes to pure running back threats, the Lions’ duo of David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs is simply unmatched in the NFL. Look no further than this incredible stat from the Detroit Lions’ PR Twitter account.
.@Lions RBs @MontgomerDavid & Jahmyr Gibbs each have two 20-yard TD rushes this season. The last time Detroit had two players with multiple 20-yard rushing TDs in a season was in 1936. Detroit’s RBs have 1,502 scrimmage yards in 2023, the 2nd-most among any team’s RB unit.
And while it’s ridiculous anytime a franchise is matching records set nearly a century ago, it’s that last line that caught my attention. The Lions’ running back room is second in the NFL in scrimmage yards produced.
I’m sure you’re asking, “Who is first?” The answer is the Miami Dolphins, and they’re probably the best case for a challenger to Detroit’s RB duo. Let’s compare the two:
- Raheem Mostert: 109 carries, 605 yards (5.6 YPC), 11 TDs; 19 catches, 151 yards, 2 TDs
- De’Von Achane: 38 carries, 460 yards (12.1 YPC), 5 TDs; 9 catches, 67 yards, 2 TDs
Total: 147 carries, 1,065 yards (7.2 YPC), 16 TDs; 28 catches, 218 yards, 4 TDs
- David Montgomery: 106 carries, 501 yards (4.7 YPC), 7 TDs; 6 catches, 66 yards
- Jahmyr Gibbs: 90 carries, 476 yards (5.3 YPC), 4 TDs; 31 catches, 200 yards
Total: 196 carries, 977 yards (5.0 YPC), 14 TDs; 37 catches, 266 yards, 0 TDs
Okay, it’s not even close. The Dolphins backs are producing more yards on fewer carries, and that’s not even taking into account that rookie running back De’Von Achane has only played in four games.
So why am I declaring the Lions’ running back duo to be the best in the league? Because I’m a ridiculous homer, of course. No, it’s because the Dolphins running backs are producing a ridiculous amount of their yardage before contact. Let’s look at some advanced statistics to drive this point home.
Yards before contact
(stats via Pro Football Reference)
Among running backs with at least 30 rushing attempts, both Dolphins backs rank first and second rushing yards before contact per rushing attempt:
- De’Von Achane: 7.1 YBC per attempt (first)
- Raheem Mostert: 3.7 YBC per attempt (second)
It’s not exactly either players’ fault that the offensive line and scheme is giving them so many free yards, and they deserve some credit for finding the right holes. But this is also a pretty key stat to show that both Achane and Mostert are benefitting from outstanding circumstances.
Now, the Lions have a pretty darn good offensive line and scheme, too. Yet their rankings in this stat are much more pedestrian and normal.
- Jahmyr Gibbs: 3.0 YPC per attempt (13th)
- David Montgomery: 2.8 YPC per attempt (21st)
Yards after contact
To his credit, Achane somehow ranks first in this category, as well. But it’s also worth remembering that his sample size of 38 carries has these rate statistics artificially inflated. Once he gets the ball more, it will be nearly impossible to keep up this incredible production.
- De’Von Achane: 5.0 YAC per attempt (first)
- Raheem Mostert: 1.9 YAC per attempt (14th)
That said, both of the Lions’ backs rank higher than Mostert in this category.
- Jahmyr Gibbs: 2.3 YAC per attempt (sixth)
- David Montgomery: 2.0 YAC per attempt (12th)
This is where the Lions truly separate themselves from the pack.
- David Montgomery: 12 broken tackles (t-third)
- Jahmyr Gibbs: 10 broken tackles (t-ninth)
- Raheem Mostert: 7 broken tackles (t-22nd)
- De’Von Achane: 5 broken tackles (t-33rd)
True complementary backs
Setting aside the stats for a minute, the true brilliance of Detroit’s running back duo is their interchangeability. On the surface, the roles between the two seem clear: Montgomery is the bruising, short-yardage back. Gibbs is the explosive weapon who is best used in space.
But that’s a poor, surface-level analysis of the two. Montgomery is an explosive runner, too. He is one of just nine running backs with two rushes of 40+ yards this season. He’s also a perfectly capable receiver, even if the Lions haven’t used him much in that role yet. In fact, from 2020 to 2022, Montgomery ranked ninth in the NFL in receptions among running backs.
As for Gibbs, he has proved over the last month—with Montgomery sidelined—that he is just as capable of being that between-the-tackles back. On Sunday against the Chargers, the Lions opted to keep Gibbs in the game during goal line situations, and he rewarded the team with two touchdown runs. Against the Raiders as the feature back, turned 26 carries into 152 yards on the ground, many of which came on traditional between-tackles runs.
That sort of versatility among both running backs allows Detroit to do so much. They can put both on the field at the same time and leave defenses guessing pre-snap. They can manage both players’ workloads to make sure they’re still running with as much efficiency in January that they did in September. They’re also protected for injuries, knowing that if either goes down, the other can pick up the slack.
The Dolphins are very much in a similar situation, but their sample size of having two capable backs is still a bit inconclusive. Achane’s production numbers are wild, but 38 carries is too few. He’s yet to prove he can manage a full workload in a game, if necessary, as he’s only had more than 12 rushing attempts in just one game. The Dolphins have started the clock on Achane’s return from IR, so we’ll see soon enough.
Regardless of your own personal rankings, both the Lions and Dolphins are in excellent shape with their backfields, and both teams should be thrilled with the efficiency of their run games moving forward.